"More than machinery, we need humanity."
What is the line between voicing a professional opinion and libel? This is a matter that one unlucky librarian is currently learning quite a bit about.
To summarize the story: In 2010 librarian Dale Askey (currently a librarian at McMaster University [in Canada]) posted a piece on his blog that could be construed as being highly critical of a certain academic press (at the time of the posting Askey was a librarian at Kansas State University). In Askey’s post “The Curious case of Edwin Mellen Press” (you can read it here, you’ll have to scroll down a bit to get to the post) he referred to the press as a “vanity press,” criticized the cost of publication, questioned the credentials of series editors, voiced aggravation at the physical quality of the books, and wrote other things that were not particularly flattering including calling the press “a dubious publisher” right at the outset. Indeed it was not such a nice post, and amongst the comments that were written below it (comments not written by Askey, there were other harsh words about the publisher). And now…Askey (and McMaster his current employer [not his employer at the time of the posting]) is being sued for 3 million dollars in damages for defamation by Edwin Mellen Press.
If you think that it seems absurd to sue a librarian for 3 million dollars in defamation damages for a blog post from several years ago, know that you are not alone. After all, I think that it would be hard for the press to make the case that Askey’s post has crippled their ability to sell books. Or to put this another way: had you heard of Dale Askey until he got sued? Had you read his blog? I had not heard of him, or read his blog, and I spent too much time reading library sites and blogs. Furthermore, did you have a strong opinion regarding the press in question? I know that I didn’t, even though I have some familiarity with some of the titles they have published. Had the press done nothing…the post would have been forgotten.
Since the lawsuit was announced several websites have been doing an excellent job of covering this case (Inside Higher Ed, Library Journal, Chronicle of Higher Education) and I have little to add in the way of coverage. I agree with much of the commentary that the sites have been posting. And these sites have already started covering the case of Jeffrey Beall (a librarian at the University of Colorado Denver) who is being threatened with legal action for a posting on his blog critical of a different press.
Part of the job of librarians is to evaluate resources, this includes publishers, and if a librarian finds a certain publisher questionable it seems not unreasonable for them to voice these concerns. I cannot predict the outcomes of these cases (and Canadian law is different from US law); however, I would not be at all surprised if the courts rule in favor of the librarians in these cases. I think that the publishers may be doing themselves more harm than good in this matter. After all they are now attracting a lot of negative attention and Askey’s blog piece is certainly getting more attention now than it received when it was originally posted.
And yet…I think that it might not matter. These lawsuits seem to me to be less about winning and more about intimidation. Even if the librarians emerge victorious in these court cases these presses have still sent a powerful warning to would be critics: criticize us and you will get sued!
One can only hope that the reaction to these cases will not just be a victory for the librarians but will prompt other librarians to avoid purchasing from these presses (and prompt scholars to look elsewhere for publishing). But if the fear of lawsuits leads to librarians refraining from voicing criticism than the damage done is much worse than an easily quantifiable amount like $3 million.
Updates on this story: